By Jonathan Phelps
---- — WENHAM — The gravestone of Samuel Tarbox (1715-1784) tilts to one side on top of the hill at the Old Cemetery on Main Street.
But after 220 years, it is still standing.
The same is not true, however, for many other stones in the cemetery, which have cracked and broken over the years. And there is a concern that gravestones like Tarbox’s will soon join them. Now, the town’s Cemetery Commission is working to preserve the historic markers dating back to the 1700s.
“The old portion of the Old Cemetery was in terrible shape,” said Bryant Barnard, chairman of the Cemetery Commission.
He said the stones have not been worked on for a very long time — if worked on at all. Many of the historic gravestones were cracked, leaning or unreadable because of lichens or moss growing on them, he said.
“Those stones go back 250 to 300 years or so. They go back to the earliest days of the settlement of Wenham,” Barnard said. “We have a lot of people interested in genealogy,” he said, and many come looking for gravestones of relatives.
The work is being completed by Concord-based Fannin-Lehner Preservation Consultants on a $30,000 community preservation grant. The firm has done work all around New England, including in Salem.
Much of the work includes resetting the stones and piecing together broken stones with pins, adhesive or mortar, Barnard said. Some stones need new foundations to be poured, he said.
Barnard said Fannin-Lehner first came up with an assessment plan of about 300 stones to determine which ones needed to be worked on. The plans began in the spring of 2012.
It takes some time to come up with such a plan, said Minxie Fannin, who owns the business with her husband, Jim.
“We looked at every one of the gravestones and monuments in the old section to see if it needed treatment or not,” she said.
The purpose of their work is to prolong the existence of historic markers, not completely restore them, she said.
Once it is determined which ones need work, the stones are cleaned, photographed and documented. Each one is marked with a different-colored ribbon to mark the progress. A blue ribbon means the stone is complete.
“It is not fast work,” Fannin said.
Fannin said they are working on about half the stones that need work at the cemetery.
Barnard said it will take another $30,000 to complete the second half of the project. The commission has not yet determined if it will apply for more community preservation funds, he said.
“We’ll have to wait and see how far this goes and how much this will accomplish,” he said.
Barnard said one challenge is the fact that many broken pieces of gravestones have been picked up over the years by various crews, and they need to figure out where they need to be placed.
But the work will be worth it, he said.
“They are going to keep decaying,” he said. “But we can do what we can to preserve them as long as we can.”
Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.